Caspar Schwenckfeld
A Discourse on Freedom of Religion,
Christian Doctrine, Judgement, and Faith

(c. 1561)

Excerpts from the Original Electronic Text at the web site of the Schwenkfelder Library.

The Gospel, the Christian Religion, and the Word of God do not require that the Conscience be entangled with Articles of Faith, nor that the Holy Spirit be hindered by them, but that everything be test with free judgement, and by the grace of God the best things chosen.

Because Almighty God from His boundless mercy has shined forth a great light in our own times, so that even the common understanding buy the grace of God may easily see and understand into what great error we have been led at various times concerning the Word of God, true worship, and divine truth (this deception has indeed lasted many hundreds of years, from soon after the time of the Apostles themselves this deception has been increased by so much error), it is well to consider whether all this error could be discovered in only a few years and whether by great struggle everything might be restored at once to the first Apostolic Order and Christian Perfection.

God the merciful husbands His gifts (as He has always done) so that not everything is given out at once, nor given to only one man, nor strewn in only one place. No. He distributes them gradually, as to Him seems best, and as they are most useful, reasonable, and beneficial for men, one after the other, so that everything has its own time, and every occurrence under heaven its appointed hour, as the wise man, Ecclesiastes says, Eccl. 3:1.

Indeed, God the Lord did not reveal everything at once even to His beloved Apostles, by whom He intended at first to convert the world and to transform it into a new existence, as we shall hear. It should come as no surprise, then, that if in our times He has still kept back much it is necessary to the progress of the Gospel and the beginning of true piety, which is indeed proceeding slowly enough, that He might graciously give gifts in response to the prayers and petitions of pious men.

Indeed, whoever is perceptive of things in the light of grace and desires to consider properly what the Prophets have written concerning the last times, and the common deceit of the world, as well as to take more to heart his own thanklessness before God, will realize easily that things have not yet reached a state of perfection, as some philosophers seem to think they have.

For this reason one ought to live in great humility before both God and men, and with regard to the things of the Gospel and of faith, he ought to proceed most cautiously, with no one condemning, banning, or judging anyone else. No one should take away anyone else's Christian freedom, nor let his conscience be entangled by any man-made articles of faith, nor let the Spirit of God (Who inspires whomever and whenever He will) be hindered in any way at all, as has happened in the past, when all our faith, happiness, and prosperity rested on one man, on account of which we were subjected to misery and unspeakable want. Every Christian, both teachers and students, should, rather, pay strict attention to the works and manifold gifts of God everywhere manifest with great reverence (for in this matter God desires complete mastery); he must use with thanksgiving the things which have been so graciously given to him, if he wishes to praise God and be of service to his neighbors. Let him seek only for the honor of God in them; by this means he will be able to further piety and God's honor among men, if he takes care of them as God gives him to do so, remembering always that God is an Almighty, Perfect, Omniscient God now and always, while we men are poor, weak, and unknowing. Indeed, if these things would obtain among all Christians, the learned and the unlearned, indeed, among all to whom the Lord Christ has granted His gifts, it might be comfortingly hoped that we should have less controversy, error, and disunion, and that God might give us more peace, love, unity, and truth, that we might dwell together for a long time in the love of Christ. May it be so!

We wish to demonstrate from Holy Scripture that the Almighty God did not reveal everything at once to His apostles, so that no one should let himself be bound up by Articles of faith that he might not accept something better. Hereof we shall let everyone judge for himself.

1st. It is clearly stated (John 16:12, 13) that Our Lord and God Jesus Christ in the few years in which He was with His disciples did not reveal everything to them which was important for them to know, but reserved many things for the Holy Spirit, as the disciples at that time could not bear everything. This is what the Lord said: "I have many things which I should still like to tell you, but you cannot bear them all now; however, when the Spirit of Truth comes upon you, He will lead you into all truth." Now, although some have misused this speech to prove their own human conceptions, we should not let the truth in it be taken from us, for everything which the Lord Christ has spoken and taught must be true (as indeed it is).

Well, then, what was still necessary for the Holy Spirit to teach the apostles? Undoubtedly, many things which they could simply not comprehend without further revelation from the Holy Spirit: concerning the Kingdom of God and all its attributes, what it is, its condition and progress (so that anyone might clearly understand them, that even weak consciences might perceive them and be assured by them); concerning this the disciples had no sure understanding before the Lord ascended into heaven, as we read (Acts 1:6) that they questioned Him and said: "Lord, will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?" for they could not think anything else than that He would set up a physical kingdom here on earth for the Jews as any other powerful king or emperor would have done, in which they might be the lords of the earth with their messiah, which many Jews still hope for today.

In this connection, consider Matthew 20:20, 21, where the mother of the sons of Zebedee requested the Lord Christ that her two sons might sit in His Kingdom, the one at His right hand, the other at His left (such was the poor people's conception of the Kingdom of Christ at that time) for they wanted to be princes, marshals, and stewards, just as on another occasion they had argued about who should be in charge when the Lord had gone from them (Luke 22:24-6). Who knows what their wives thought about all this, whether they did not, indeed, wish to enjoy high honors with them, and for that reason might have allowed their husbands to keep company with the Lord? But this is what the Lord said: "You do not know what you are asking," as Matthew reports.

From this it is clear that even the beloved disciples of Christ did not know or understand everything at once, that the Lord did not reveal everything to them in the years He was with them, nor did he bind their consciences to his oral teachings alone, much less present them with Articles of faith; rather, He let their minds open to the Holy Spirit and preserved for Him a free judgement in His disciples. It was then for the Holy Spirit to take from the riches of Christ whatever He wished to teach them; indeed, He is the Spirit of the Lord who honors and glorifies Christ, and leads Christians into all truth.

If things were thus with the disciples whom the Lord Himself taught, how should things be with us, who are poor indeed by contrast? Should we not also, especially the learned among us, proceed more cautiously in these most dangerous times? Should we not also give the Spirit freedom of action, not willing to be too hasty in any action, nor binding and tangling up anyone's conscience, that we might truly live in humility and perceive all things with a free judgement.

2nd. If anyone should say that this happened because the Holy Spirit had not yet been given to the disciples, and that is why they did not know what to think, but now that He has been given to us, things are different, we find another example of ignorance and stupidity in St. Peter himself, who had not only received the Holy Spirit, but had even been prepared, sealed, and confirmed for the work of an apostle, and had even preached the Gospel for a long time; but he was found to ignorant of the essential doctrine of the conversion of pagans: that they, too, belong in the Kingdom of God (even) though the Scriptures abound with this teaching), nor did he understand the truth of this, until the Holy Spirit revealed it to him.

This is what we read in Acts, Chapter 10, wherein the Holy Spirit desired to prepare him to go to the Centurion Cornelius, who was a pagan. The Holy Spirit showed him by an acted parable that he should not call anyone unclean or common (that is, to keep anyone out of the Kingdom of God or from the grace of God); concerning these things he was ignorant and had no understanding of them, as the Scriptures relate. However, when the Holy Spirit had revealed these things to him, he opened his mouth and said: "Now I know indeed that God is no respecter of persons, but that among all peoples, whoever lives in fear and righteousness before Him is pleasing to Him." Acts 10:17-36.

From this history we learn truly that even if a man have the Holy Spirit and is proclaimer of the Gospel and Word of God, or even an apostle, that it does not follow that he knows everything all at once, nor can understand all the mysteries of God, for the Spirit has not given him everything at once, nor revealed it to him, but gives him each thing at its proper time which will be to the praise of God and for the understanding and betterment of man, as He best know to ordain and bring forth. Why, then, in matters of faith should anyone presume to know all things? Indeed, why should we let ourselves be entangled by the learned in Articles of faith, so that, if God should give us a better insight through the testimony of the Scriptures, we should not be able to accept it? Is this not a surrender of Christian liberty and a new imprisonment in another dungeon? 3rd. To further confirm this point, we read in the Epistle to the Galatians (2:11-14) that a long time after this St. Peter was publicly upbraided by Paul because he gave offence and did not live according to the truth of the Gospel. The Holy Spirit did not reveal something else to him even though he was the chief among the apostles; instead, the Spirit of God revealed it to another one, who was not from among the Twelve, nor had been bodily with the Lord. This rebuke Peter had to accept, despite his high office and without any complaining. Whether our learned theologians today would accept such a rebuke with patience can be easily guessed by their actions. They would surely say that the Gospel would suffer in consequence if the renowned should be attacked by the unknown, as was Peter by Paul: this reveals their pride and self-love, which are, unfortunately, too much in evidence today. How could anything be more unevangelical than this? Why should we not wish to keep our freedom in this matter, and give the Holy Spirit room and place to work?

4th. St. Paul declares clearly and distinctly that all Christians, both teachers and students, must continue learning as long as they live: "Here our knowledge is only partial or imperfect," I Corinthians 13:9. For this reason, no one can really compass the Holy Spirit and His revelation in prescribed Articles of faith, nor should he try to do so, nor should he let his conscience be bound by them. This is indeed the way St. Paul dealt with his churches whom he always directed to Christ the only Master Teacher in all things, as he writes (Philippians 3:12-15): I press on in pursuit of this that I might obtain it, for in it indeed I have been obtained by Christ; my brothers, I do not consider that I have obtained this, but one thing I do say: I forget what is behind me and stretch forward to what is before me, and I press on toward the goal ahead, toward the prize which is the heavenly calling of God in Christ Jesus. As much as we are now "perfect," Paul says, "let us continue to be so inclined (that is, in Christ), and if you should hold or know anything differently, let God reveal it to you."

Consider this: here we find an apostolic teacher in St. Paul; he does not direct the attention of his people to himself nor to any prescribed Articles of faith: no, he, true servant that he is, directs their attention away from himself and toward his Master Christ, to the revelation of God, from which he himself was learning, a student under the great Master Christ Himself, as all teachers in His school should do. But, you ask, how can this be? How should we emulate Paul in this: indeed, how should we be true to Christ himself, if we should think when a small light of understanding should shine upon the Holy Scriptures, that we had received the whole understanding of them and tried to rule everyone in matters of faith and conscience: 5th. Paul did not pray in vain (Ephesians 1:17) that the God of our Lord Christ the Father of Glory might give the Ephesians (hence, all Christians) the Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation that they might truly have experiential knowledge of Him. But, then, did he ever do anything else? Did he ever fail to give the Holy Spirit in Christ full authority in His work? Didn't he always direct his hearers or congregations inwardly, into their own hearts, so that there they might perceive the true doctrine and teaching of God, and not let themselves be entangled in any external things, but judge everything by the standards of the Lord Christ, preserving thereby a free Christian judgement in everything?

6th. We find these things confirmed not only by the teaching of St. Paul (that he permits Christians their freedom, and directs them always to the true Master Teacher the Holy Spirit, from Whom indeed he received his commission to teach), but in the very practice of the Church itself the free judgement of the Church is displayed. Paul writes (1 Corinthians 14:29-30): But let two or three prophets prophesy, and let the rest listen and judge for themselves; but if anyone who is seated listening receives a revelation, let the speaker be still that the listener may speak. This shows clearly enough that the church has not yet attained to the conditions which obtained in the past, when one might even interrupt the official preacher. Martin Luther wrote in his Postill concerning this practice: when he discussed St. Stephen and his preaching, he mentioned this text from St. Paul, how they spoke one after the other in the church of God at that time. Luther continues, that now only one person speaks about Dietrich of Berne, or whatever else he has dreamed about. A true sermon, Luther says, should proceed as a symposium (dinner conversation) does. This is the reason Christ instituted the Supper as He did, so that people should sit at table to discuss His words. Now, however, everything has been turned around, and vain human ordinances have replaced the ordinances of God; this is what Luther says. This is also the only position we hold, for we realize that there was no such constraint of conscience, nor was there any attempt at self-justification by the learned in the first Apostolic Church. Christians in those times did, indeed, retain their free judgement, as God Himself gave it to them.

7th. The Merciful God, for that very reason, distributed to the Church at that time a variety of gifts, so that no one should have anything to boast about, nor by which to constrain their consciences. This is what Paul says: "To every person the gifts of the Spirit are given for the good of all: one is given by the Spirit to speak of wisdom; to another it is given to speak of knowledge by the same Spirit; to a third faith is given by the same Spirit, "etc." These are, however, all gifts given by the same one Spirit; He gives to each according as He wills." I. Corinthians 12:7-11.

But how, I ask, can the Holy Spirit come to us or proceed with us, if He has been prevented from doing His work, while we, in matters of faith, permit ourselves to be controlled by men, or are compelled to live according to their prescribed Articles of faith in all things as happened in the past?

8th. For this very reason, there is a sure rule established in Christianity which applies to all Christians, one which they should all take to heart. St. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, says: "Do not quench (suppress) the Spirit; do not despise prophecy; test everything, and retain whatever is good," 1 Thessalonians 5:19, 20. If one really intends not to quench nor suppress the Spirit, he must proceed with caution and in the fear of God. On the other hand, however, we know what the Lord Jesus said to His disciples: "They will put you under the ban, and, indeed, a time in coming when whoever will kill you will think he is serving God thereby," John 16:2. This is a weighty thought, indeed, one which ought to be seriously meditated upon.

If one desires not to hate prophecy, he must listen to those who prophesy; he must give no one individual (who may have little enough of the Spirit himself) the right to cut off divine activity wherever God may manifest it. He must let such activity be tested by many people, to determine whether it will result in true piety, improvement and (spiritual) happiness. It is truly proper that this rule stands firmly fixed in the Church of Christ and applies not only to the learned, but to all the members of Christ, to whom Paul did indeed write. One could ground Christian freedom on this text alone, letting it be bound only by the Word of God and learning to choose the best from all sources according to the testimony of the Holy Scriptures. "Test everything," Paul says, "and hold fast to whatever is good."

9th. We have the same kind of testimony in 1 John 4:1, where St. John writes: "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but test them, whether they are of God for many false prophets have gone out into the world." Here we see with what sort of foresight every Christian is supposed to deal in matters of faith if he does not wish to be deceived. He must look carefully on whomever preaches to him, in what spirit he preaches, whence he derives his office and doctrine, what power and blessing he brings with him, what manner of life he leads, and in which things he makes improvement or judges rightly. If he is of God (the truth of which, God be praised, will not be hard for the good-hearted man to determine from now on), he should certainly be held in esteem as worthy and valuable for the sake of his Lord, Who sent him to us, even though he will accept none of these honors, giving the glory always to his Lord Christ, whose honor alone he will seek, and to whom he will direct everyone. On the other hand, if he is full of greed, envy, contentiousness, showiness, pride, and such things, he will, in the end, be able to do little good indeed.

In this connection also, one cannot be sure of anyone who appears to be learned or pious, for many people can hide hypocrisy for a long time, or can fall away again from their first condition of grace. This is why John says that many false prophets have gone out, etc. This is also why he requires a testing of the spirits continuously; this is always a sure sign that no one has let his conscience be constrained by any other man, but that he looks always to our Lord and God Jesus Christ and to His Spirit even among men, that he might remain in the freedom which Christ has procured for him by His blood.

10th. Christ the Lord admonishes us Himself to be on our guard, when He says: "Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear," and: "Be careful what it is you hear," Mark 4:9, 24.

If we really are to exercise this care, we must not surrender the spiritual freedom procured for us by Christ; we must not abandon our own understanding and judgement. We must be clever, wise, and farsighted in considering every doctrine and intention of their exponents.

For this reason Jesus warns us sincerely in another place, when He says: "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees," Matthew 16:6. This is a powerfully important warning, for it has often happened that in the name of a good appearance of church order and Christian obedience, many things have been done which have proved before God and men to be ruinous, contentious, unloving, warlike, and damnable. In such circumstances we have discovered all too late that we have not only been deprived of our spiritual judgement, but in the name of obedience, we have accepted temporal authority over both our bodies and our souls.

Therefore, let the duty of both eyes and ears (the eyes and ears of the heart) be to test all things, entering into no thing lightly or without the testimony of the conscience, for one cannot always withdraw with a godfearing heart from everything to which he has put his hand, especially in matters of faith. 11th. We must not forget, especially when we think we are most secure, what the Lord says in the Gospel (Matthew 7:15, 16): "Beware of false prophets who come in sheep's clothing, but who are inwardly raging wolves: you will be able to recognize them by the fruits they bear." With these words the Lord gave all Christians the authority to judge all doctrines, to judge freely what is right and what is wrong. For more than a thousand years false Christians have displaced this verse, so that we have not had this authority to judge these things; on the contrary, we have had to accept the judgements of sophists and even worse "Christians."

Because our Lord God has now released us from our spiritual imprisonment into freedom, it is more necessary than ever that, as the Lord says, we must recognize them by their fruits.

All these things and many more Luther preached bravely in his Postill, when, speaking of Councils and theological scholars, he says that high titles and human wisdoms are inimical to God; and for this reason God permits them to become quite gross, and brings them to naught in their endeavors so that everyone might see that the proverb is true which says, the learned are the most confused. Those are his very words.

For this reason we must remain free judges, Luther writes further to all Christians, so that we might have authority to judge and to determine for ourselves, to accept and to condemn whatever the pope declares or the councils ordain. If we wish to take up something, let us do it ourselves in accord with our own consciences and the Scriptures, not because they have ordained it. This is what St. Paul says (Romans 12:6): "If anyone prophesy, let it be in accordance with faith, for all prophecy which does not lead directly to Christ, Who is our only comfort, no matter how comforting, it is, is not in accord with faith."

This is what Luther was teaching when conditions were better than they are now: it is sound and Christian. With these words he sets aside every attempt at coercion of the conscience; he also hereby places his own doctrine in the balance to be accepted or rejected. Indeed, he gives a rule that we should not accept anything which does not lead us directly to Christ, has nothing to say to the good conscience, and which is not in accord with the Holy Scriptures. This should be a sure test of every doctrine and every spirit.

12th. It is clear from the writings of St. Paul that Christian faith is the gift of the Holy Spirit and the free gift of God; for this reason, no man is able either to give or to remove it from anyone. The righteous man must live out his faith before God. It follows from this that no one, be he pope, priest, bishop, minister, or whatever, can compel another to believe by his own authority; nor, on that account should he hate, envy, or shun him if he has not yet received this gift from God. It must not be supposed, however, that anyone is hereby given any license to commit sacrilege, to conduct false worship of God, or to sin deliberately against Christ and the Christian faith, nor, finally, to be simply a silent spectator (which might seem to be an appropriate response) in the face of false doctrine or improper worship. However, in matters relating to true faith, the experiential knowledge of Christ, and, indeed, to anything which is in accord with faith and honorableness, every person should deal with his neighbor in a truly loving way, bearing with him in patience, praying to God for him, admonishing him in a friendly manner, not neglecting to do anything which might be of (spiritual) use for him, until God Himself intervene in his behalf. In this way he will faithfully attract, stimulate, and invite his neighbour by his good example, patience, and good deeds much more readily to faith, using sound, pure doctrine in peace, love, and humility, than he could with threats, coercion, and violence. Nor, indeed, can he talk him into it, if God (on Whom all this depends) has not yet poured it into his heart. This is the ideal towards which all preachers should be striving; if they are not striving for it, one ought not to follow them.

13th. Should they, despite all the foregoing, desire to take up the sword to coerce the conscience, to threaten compliance by human means, not taking after the crucified Christ at all, one can convince them from the teachings of Peter and Paul that they have no real authority to do this. Paul writes to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 1:24): "We are not the masters of your faith, but we are assistants of your joy." St. Ambrose comments on this verse as follows: "Faith comes not by compulsion, but it is a matter of free choice; therefore, no one has the authority to compel anyone else in such matters, nor to coerce him with new laws." Peter also admonishes the elders or bishops carefully in these matters, that all things must take place in love. This is what he says: "Take care of the flocks of Christ which are in your keeping, not as if compelled to do so, but willingly, not for the sake of shameful profit, but in true humility, not as the masters of an inheritance, but being examples for your flocks, so that will receive the imperishable crown of glory when the Chief Shepherd appears," 1 Peter 5:2-4. O would to God that all the learned, preachers, shepherds, and elders (bishops) might take these words to heart; then, things would surely be better and would proceed in closer accord to the love of God. 14th and finally. St. Paul admonishes us lovingly that we should not let ourselves get entangled in human ordinances or Articles, when he writes to the Galatians (Gal. 5:1): "Continue in the freedom with which Christ has freed us, and do not let yourselves be bound again by the yoke of servitude." Paul signifies by this "yoke of servitude" primarily the Law of Moses, from which, with the help of powerful rulers, men have taken many ceremonies, services, compulsions, and enforcements. By this means Christians were robbed of their Christian freedom, and Christianity became indistinguishable from the old Judaism because of its own usages, temporal honor, and authority; by this means also our consciences were burdened with unbearable laws.

As soon as these people (the ceremonialists) had set themselves up in the temple of God to rule in the place of Christ, they began to grow in pride, greed, and arrogance, to decrease in spirituality, to distribute grace and indulgences, to assume to themselves all the power and authority of God, to forgive sins, and to loose and bind as if they themselves were the Holy Spirit. In this way they have fallen away from Christ and from all spiritual discernment; in this way also, they have burdened the whole of Christianity with the heavy yoke of servitude and have led many souls into a maze of utter confusion, which is even to this day a pitiful sight to behold.

From such examples, which are now, praise God, revealed to us, we may learn many things in our own times (if we are not bent on deliberate destructiveness); such things as the manner, caution, spirit, and foresight necessary in dealing with matters of faith, so that in setting aside the old ceremonialists we do not replace them with new ones who are even worse than the old ones and more worthy of censure.

Therefore, it is not proper for those learned in the Gospel to propose anything in the Christian Church in this Mosaical manner, much less in any pagan manner; just as in accord with the New Testament and among Christians (who are called the anointed of the Lord) there can and ought to be no coerced faith, religion, or worship of God. The free, willing worship of God proceeds from a good, freely assenting heart. The Gospel is a teaching of the heart, not of laws, in which is to be found the work of the Holy Spirit, II Corinthians 3:8. The Spirit inspires whenever, wherever, and whomever He will, John 3:8; I Corinthians 12:11. He does not permit Himself to be bound, compelled, or controlled by Articles of faith, just as the wind cannot be contained or controlled. For this reason independent, goodly-inclined people who have been chosen by God will adhere to the New Covenant, to the Gospel, and to the teachings of Christ. Compulsion of conscience, the binding of faith to Articles, and the teaching of human ordinances have never been productive of good in matters in faith.

May God the Almighty Heavenly Father give the learned an humble spirit, that they might pray diligently concerning all matters of the Gospel which have not yet been fully revealed. May He enlighten their hearts that they might live in accordance with the Gospel, giving all honor to His Son Jesus Christ. May He reveal His truth to us ever more and more, uniting us truly to Himself, that neither death, the world, nor all the gates of hell may prevail against us. To Him be praise, honor and thanks for His revealed Gospel now and forever. Amen.

Text: Corpus Schwenckfeldianorum, Letters and Treatises of Caspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig. Ed. by Chester D. Hartranft, Elmer Ellsworth Schultz Johnson, Selina Gerhard Schultz, et. al. (Göttingen, 1907-1961), vol. 17, document 1159, pp. 659-74.
trans. by Fred A. Grater
ed. by Peter C. Erb

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